The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919) can be said to have defined, for our century, what criticism once called the Sublime. An apprehension of a beyond or of the daemonic—a sense of transcendence—appears in literature or life, according to Freud, when we feel that something uncanny (unheimlich) is being represented, or conjured up, or at least intimated. Freud locates the source of the uncanny in our narcissistic and atavistic tendency to believe in “the omnipotence of thought,” that is, in the power of our own or of others’ minds over the natural world. The uncanny is thus a return to animistic conceptions of the universe, and is produced by the psychic defense Freud called repression, an unconsciously purposeful forgetting of drives that might menace our socially conditioned “ego-ideals,” that is, the models we attempt to imitate.
It would have seemed likely for Freud to find his literary instances of the uncanny, or at least some of them, in fairy tales, since as much as any other fictions they seem to be connected with repressed desires and archaic forms of thought. But Freud specifically excluded fairy tales from the realm of the uncanny. “Who would be so bold,” Freud asks, “as to call it an uncanny moment, for instance, when Snow-White opens her eyes once more?” Why not? Because, he goes on to say, in those stories everything is possible and so nothing is incredible, and therefore no conflicts in the reader’s judgment are provoked. Freud concludes his essay, “The Uncanny,” by an even more arbitrary judgment: “In fairy-stories feelings of fear—including uncanny sensations—are ruled out altogether.”
Why Freud takes this attitude toward fairy tales is something of a mystery, at least to me, though two surmises immediately suggest themselves: there may be a hidden polemic here, against Jung and his excursions into daemonic romance, and there always is an ambivalence on Freud’s part toward literary romance, so that the forms of what Northrop Frye, adapting Schiller, calls “naive romance” are not tempting to Freud’s interpretative skills. Essentially, Freud chose dreams and mistakes and neurotic symptoms in preference to stories, and his keen sense of texts did not betray him in such choosing; for even the simplest fairy tale tends to be a palimpsest, a textual jungle in which one interpretation has grown itself upon another, until by now the interpretations have become the story.
Where Freud would not venture, few orthodox Freudians have trespassed, though Karl Abraham and Otto Rank (in his earlier work) in different ways verged upon the area of the folk tale. Now Bruno Bettelheim, with a kind of wise innocence, has subjected fairy tales, in general and in particular, to very close, generally orthodox, and wholly reductive Freudian interpretations. Bettelheim’s book, written in apparent ignorance of the vast critical traditions of interpreting literary romance, is nevertheless a splendid achievement, brimming with useful ideas, with insights into how young children read and understand, and most of all overflowing …
Trust the Tale August 5, 1976